The Best Comics of 2015
I hate the term ‘graphic novel’. It’s a word for people who are ashamed that they like reading comics but think they can give them respectability by calling ’em graphic novels. So now you have this distinction between highbrow comics with artistic or literary value, ‘graphic novels’ and the traditional comics like Donald Duck and Spider-Man.
Only I don’t like to make that distinction because there are Donald Duck comics that are more insightful of the human struggle than the novels of Jonathan Franzen and graphic novels that are silly exercises in pretentious humbuggery, often painfully badly drawn to boot.
To me they are all comics and you have good comics and bad comics, like you have good and bad prose and mediocre prose. My list of favorite comics of 2015 contains great literary works and unpretentious escapism. What they have in common, however, is that they combine text with pictures that form a sequence and that they are made by people who know their trade.
At the end of this month the most important comic event of Europe will be held, the festival of Angoulême. At this festival prizes will be awarded for the best comic strips and comic artists. Not one female comic author is nominated, although the comic world is thriving with talented women bringing much needed innovation to the art of comics.
My list contains three works by female authors. That’s embarrassingly few, but still better than the jury of Angoulême. I read quite a few good books by women, but only these three were published in 2015.
I hope you enjoy my list.
10: The Hernandez Brothers: ‘Love and Rockets; New Stories‘ no.7
I have to be honest: The Hernandez Brothers are not as powerful anymore as they were 25 years ago, when they were the undisputed kaisers of indie comics. Especially Gilbert Hernandez, whose Palomar stories were like Gabriel García Márquez in comic form, often bores me to tears nowadays.
Jaime Hernandez has always been my favorite, because of his clean, romance comic style of drawing and his female characters, who are so real. It’s for those characters I keep reading Love and Rockets. I am more or less of the same age as Maggie and Hopey, two girls who grew up in East L.A., and it’s like we grew old together.
Jaime never disappoints. His stories about the ups and downs of ordinary Latina women are warm and touching and often hilarious. Sometimes, as if he needs to escape from the depressing monotony of an underdog’s life, he lets his characters be superheroes and have adventures in outer space. After that it’s struggling with relationships and dysfunctional families again.
9: Mark Millar and Frank Quitely: ‘Jupiter’s Legacy‘
This is not the most original superhero comic I have ever read and it takes a while for the story to pick up steam, too. But once it has gained momentum it goes at break-neck speed and gets very, very intense.
It’s all in the way it is told, by both Millar and his artist Quitely. Jupiter’s Legacy is a really good action movie on paper, the Mad Max: Fury Road of comics, quite exhilarating.
Too bad we have to wait so long for the next installment.
8: Sylvie Rancourt: ‘Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer‘
This is the autobiographical story of Canadian Sylvie Rancourt who worked, urged by her loser boyfriend, in seedy bars as a nude dancer in the eighties. She started to self-publish it in installments which she sold, among others, at the bars where she danced. Later these translated into English and became a cult-classic in the US.
Now they are bundled together in one volume, with a foreword by graphic novel god Chris Ware. Rancourt’s drawings are terrible and she has no sense of perspective at all but her naïve, crude style give the sometimes harsh events a certain innocence and freshness. The total lack of any subtlety helps too.
I should hate these badly drawn stories about a rather dim-witted girl with an even more imbecilic boyfriend, surrounded by selfish assholes and losers and bums, except I don’t. They are honest and real and even titillating at times. Rancourt, above all, is never without compassion for even the most inconsiderate perverts. This book is a true diamond in the rough.
7: Elise Griffon: ‘Peau Neuve‘ (New Skin)
‘Peau neuve’ literally means ‘new skin’ but it has a lot of double meanings. It can mean ‘make-over’ and ‘faire peau neuve’ means ‘to peel’ or to become someone new.
The title of this French graphic novel probably contains all these meanings, since it is a coming of age story set in a naturist environment. You know, where people are shamelessly nude together.
It’s about a young girl, Laura, spending her summer vacation with her brother and her parents at a naturist resort. I am guessing Montalivet at the French Atlantic coast. After the summer she is introduced at her new school. This is an incredible hostile environment where it’s hard enough to be accepted without being a weird kid walking around nude with her family and friends all the time.
Laura seems to be doing fine, until she does a stupid thing: she writes an essay about her being a naturist. That’s when things start to get complicated.
Peau Neuve contrasts the harmonious naturist setting, where Laura celebrates the innocence of her youth, with the dog-eat-dog world of high school, where she quickly learns to lose her candidness and must prepare herself for her life as an adult.
The end of her naked innocence is already foreboded during her vacation at the nude resort, where adults suddenly start to get nervous about Laura hanging out with the older adolescents at the resort, whom she has known for years but are now beginning to get sexually interested in each other. Also, her vacation comes to an abrupt end when the camping is ravaged by a heavy storm.
Griffon seems to know the world of naturists very well, and she tends to idealize the world of naturism a bit. It is still a realistic representation drawn in an agreeable, somewhat naïve style with subtle colors. The naturist world has soft yellow tones, the clothed world is dominated by greys and greens.
Peau Neuve is nothing earth-shattering, but it’s nice and friendly and there’s healthy, realistic, non-sexual nudity in it (although sexuality is not completely shunned by Griffon). A very welcome change, since most nudity in graphic novels, even those drawn and written by women, is still mostly gratuitous and meant to please a male audience.
6: Joann Sfar: ‘Le Chat du Rabbin: Tu n’auras pas d’autre dieu que moi’ (The Rabbi’s Cat: you must not have any other god but me)
I thought Joann Sfar had finished his story about the speaking cat of a rabbi in French occupied Algeria in the twenties with his fifth installment, Jérusalem d’Afrique, but lo and behold, after ten years Sfar surprises us with a new album.
After their adventure in Africa, where they discover a mythical Jewish city where the descendants of king Salamo live, the nameless cat from the title, his master the rabbi and their entourage are back home, where the daughter of his master, the sensuous Zlabya, is expecting a baby.
The cat feels left out, superfluous, abandoned by the woman he was always in love with and decides, after quarreling with the rabbi about the use of praying, to dramatically leave the house and go his own way.
What follows is a journey of self-discovery on which the cat learns about love and betrayal and sexual loyalty and jealousy and cruelty and many other things.
Very witty, in that inimitable style of Sfar, who makes his drawings look like a sort of scribbly handwriting, yet at the same time maintaining an certain erotic quality.
5: Pieter Coudyzer: ‘Woekeraar‘ (untranslatable)
The only Dutch graphic novel in this list is by a Fleming, Pieter Coudyzer, who earned praize with his animated shorts. This his debut as a graphic novelist and it is quite impressive. Drawn in a surrealist, cinematic style with many green tones, it’s the dark and cruel story of an outsider who is constantly bullied and only finds peace in the deep of the woods he was once left as a child.
This is Kafka’s Der Verwandlung for the Low Lands. Flawlessly told, beautifully (in an ugly way) drawn and I think it’s the first book in color by publisher Xtra, who will not settle for anything less that a perfect printing.
The Dutch title ‘Woekeraar’ is a wordplay. In Dutch it can both mean ‘usurer’ and something that grows rampant, like weeds.
4: Neil Gaiman, J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart: ‘The Sandman: Overture‘
Twenty or so years after Gaiman finished his famed Sandman comic book series, it appears he still had a story to tell. It is a prequel and I must say the best story so far.
I am wondering if this is because of Gaiman’s story or because the way it is told by artist J.H. Williams III and colorist Dave Stewart. With Gaiman’s lines I can never decide whether it is deep wisdom or pretentious nonsense. He knows how to conjure a story though and the problem, at least in my view, with his older Sandman stories was often the way they were executed, hastily, by artists often still learning their trade.
But J.H. Williams is an incredibly gifted artist, mastering a plethora of different styles, putting layer upon layer in his intricate, virtuous drawings which flow the reader through the story, like a ride in a magical, dark amusement park or rather like truly in a dream. He even imitates, as if it were nothing, the great Moebius to fit a certain storyline, after which he changes to a hyper realism, flower power pop art and many other styles to give the reader the feeling he’s hopping from one dimension to another.
A very impressive book.
3: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips: ‘The Fade Out‘
Brubaker and Phillips are a perfect team who have been working on mainly crime noir stories for quite a few years now. Their latest story, set in Hollywood in the late forties, is the best yet. It involves the murder of a starlet about to be getting her breakthrough. A scriptwriter with a war trauma can’t live with the fact the murder is covered up as a suicide and more or less involuntarily, piece by piece, solves the puzzle of who murdered the girl and why.
The Fade Out deals with the exploitation of women by the film industry, corruption, hypocrisy and the blacklisting of writers and actors accused of communist sympathies. Last year saw the first two installments, the story will come to its conclusion some time this year.
Dark and with a sultry atmosphere, this is True Detective but done right.
2: Tillie Walden: ‘The End of Summer‘
This is why you have to visit bookstores regularly: to find things you wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. I did not choose this book, it chose me. That happens sometimes. It sat there beckoning me, and I immediately had a good feeling about it.
This is another surrealist story, about an aristocratic family locked up in a huge palace, sheltering from a long winter that apparently makes it impossible to go outside. The main characters are a boy, Lars, who is terminally ill, and his sister Maja, the sibling he is closest with. He has a giant cat (as big as a small dinosaur) and the children play and wander through the palace until conflicts arise and things start to go awry.
The End of Summer is full of symbolism and poetry and somehow reminded me of one of my favorite novels, Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain-Fournier, but also of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo. It’s drawn in a beautiful, delicate style and you wouldn’t believe Tillie Walden, who lives in Texas, is only 19 years old.
Walden has a website with more examples of her exquisite work. This book was the surprise of the year for me. I think Walden, who is a great storyteller as well as a very gifted artist, is going to be really big in the coming years.
1: Adrian Tomine: ‘Killing and Dying‘
I am kind of proud of having been a fan of Adrian Tomine since he started to self-publish his comic Optic Nerve, featuring quite powerful slice-of-life stories about estranged young Americans. Right from the beginning Tome demonstrated an intimidating knowledge of human nature and a keen eye for peculiarities. His drawing style, very clean and economic, doesn’t seem to have changed much but his stories have grown from realistic but still superficial observations to insightful studies of the machinations of the human mind.
Killing and Dying contains six stories, put together in a gorgeously designed book. Each story is told in a different style. The first story, for instance, about a gardener fancying himself an artiste, looks like a newspaper comic strip, consisting of daily installments but instead of a funny punchline each installment ends with a new disappointment for the gardener. The real story, however, is not about the gardener’s tireless efforts to get recognition as a creative genius, but about his loving, patient wife whose tolerance he is straining to the max.
So it is with the story about stuttering girl who is determined to become a successful stand-up comedian. Her jokes are terrible and she embarrasses herself repeatedly, but the real story is the one about her dying mother and the void she leaves behind.
My favorite story is the one about the cute girl hooking up with a know-it-all, totally self-absorbed loser twice her age, a loudmouth and a coward she nevertheless lets abuse and manipulate her and who still succeeds in making her feel she is not good enough for him.
Killing and Dying is a chronicle of human failure and disappointment, with no hope for relief. Although sad it is, however, far from depressing. We learn that man is extremely ingenious in finding new depths of stupidity, and this is quite hilarious.
A book to be cherished.
op 07 01 2016 at 10:58 schreef Dennis:
I considered buying that small box of Optic Nerve comics that was published a couple of years ago. But the sheer volume of the work was very intimidating. Killing and Dying is one volume and you just sold it to me.
op 07 01 2016 at 19:10 schreef Maurice:
That new Sandman seems nice. The figure’s drawing style reminds me of the perfectionist Travis Charest. I might purchase it.
op 09 01 2016 at 23:19 schreef Kees T.:
Een stuk als dit hoort gewoon in de NRC of De Groene.